It's been a week since Rihanna released the video for “Bitch Better Have My Money”, and now that we've weathered the first storm of thinkpieces trying to decide whether it’s #problematic or #sexist or whatever, we can discuss a) whether the video is actually good, and b) what all this actually means for Rihanna.
Here's what you already know: the song was written by a 20 year-old girl from Berlin called Bibi Bourelly and is about Rihanna's legal disputes with her accountant, who is believed to have given her poor financial advice losing her millions of dollars. The video is spectacularly violent and features Rihanna and her girl gang kidnapping the shit out of some woman and placing her in loads of abusive situations. At the end of the video we discover she's the wife of "the accountant", some gross guy who’s rinsing all of badgalriri’s money on grade A booze and escorts. The wife's life appears to be spared while he is brutally murdered with an array of things you could purchase from B&Q.
It's caused a storm but I'm not that sure why. The violence in context of the video actually comes off as pretty cartoonish as opposed to genuinely harmful. On the scale of “things that are potentially not suitable for children”, it’s Happy Tree Friends not Every Single Video Game Involving Guns Ever. The feminist reading of it is pretty surface level too: a stereotypical Stacey’s Mom style depiction of what the ideal American woman should be is abducted by three women who, in different ways, subvert that stereotype. As Karley Sciortino outlines in a piece for The Fader, the female victim in the video is symbolic, not literal. But I still can’t help but feel like Rihanna’s team have taken “BBHMM” and given it the most on-the-nose interpretation possible to the point where it actually takes away from the song.
For me, the problem with “BBHMM” isn’t its violence or its feminism, it’s the level of gangster posturing at play. There’s an element of dress up at work from pop stars playing the part of the gangster whose reputation is built on violence and retribution that almost makes a mockery of those who literally can’t escape it. It makes me think of that episode of Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends where he investigates the Atlanta rap scene, and some of the artists he speaks to seem to be trapped in criminal lifestyles to validate their music, while branding executives push that lifestyle as a commercial image because it sells. Whether it’s Rihanna or RiFF RAFF, any artist who has the privilege to dip in and out of being ‘bout that life without actually having had to live it just doesn’t sit comfortably when the world is full of artists who have, regardless of whether they’ve chosen to make it their “thing” (YG, Young Thug, Chief Keef, Schoolboy Q) or distanced themselves from it through critical commentary (Tupac, Kendrick Lamar, Killer Mike).
Watching Rihanna punch the camera and smash up payphones comes off as pure posturing. Obviously, she’s playing an exaggerated character as part of a fabricated narrative - like Lady Gaga and Beyonce in “Telephone” or Pitbull and Chris Brown in “Fun” - but it’s like she’s almost too dedicated to the role. It’s not funny enough to be an obvious parody, and not real enough to take seriously. They were going for Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! but ended up with a latter-day Tarantino rework of “Shy Ronnie”.
You could say that the actions-to-lyrics interpretation is pretty much Rihanna’s thing - the video’s for “Pour It Up”, “S&M”, “Umbrella” or even as far back as “Pon De Replay” are all as literal as it is possible to get - and you could argue that “BBHMM” is only being jumped on because it deals entirely with violence in a way that nobody would have criticized had it been done by a male artist (see Drake’s “Hold On, We’re Going Home”, which is kind of worse in that it’s a much less gory but far more sincere version of the same narrative).
But without the video, “BBHMM” is loads of fun. It’s playful, silly, and obviously tongue in cheek. It’s the song to accompany getting dressed up in your most outrageous clothes, putting on a serious face, and taking a carefully filtered pre-club selfie with a drink and/or cigarette in hand for extra badman points. It’s Rihanna’s Instagram presence, basically. Now that we’ve seen it soundtracking three women dragging the ultimate caricature of a rich Playboy bunny around in a trunk and forcing her to huff a bong, that’s pretty much the biggest stoke extinguisher you can get. Now I’ll never be able to hear the line “Turn up to Rihanna while the whole club fuckin' wasted” without thinking of a pair of enormous boobs swinging upside-down in a warehouse, which is a bit weird.
There are infinite “real life” instances that have made me think goddamn, Rihanna is a badass even if they have been totally orchestrated: rocking up at a fashion week afterparty in a sheer top with her nipple piercings all out, dressing as weed for Halloween, wearing a dress made entirely of diamonds and saying to a journalist: “My tits bother you? They’re covered in Swarovski crystals, girl.” I’m down with all of that. But seeing her in sitting in a trunk full of money, splattered in blood, just makes me think the opposite. The same thing happened with Lady Gaga when she pretended to hang herself on stage at the MTV Awards in 2009, or Miley Cyrus’ video for “Wrecking Ball”. They’re performances or stunts that are fully aware of their shock value but are either such balls-out visual metaphors or so painfully literal that any semblance of intrigue is stripped away. All that’s left is the sense that they might not be as smart as you originally thought.
Incidentally, “BBHMM” dropped the day after Kendrick Lamar’s video for “Alright”, which also features violence but has a much different payoff. You can’t really compare the two given that Kendrick’s To Pimp A Butterfly is one of the strongest messages about institutionalized racism to come out of music this century, but the violence in the video for “Alright” takes very real issues of discrimination that affect black communities and presents them in a way that operates on both metaphorical and self-evident levels. It full on shows white cops shooting innocent black men - a nod to anyone who has lost their life because of police brutality - which you would think would be a more widely discussed literal portrayal of violence than “BBHMM”, which is essentially the same narrative we see all the time, with female protagonists replacing the men. But “BBHMM” already has 13 million more views than “Alright” which, if anything, illustrates which way the public consciousness leans - which dialogue is easier to have.
Nobody expects Rihanna to be an authentic persona. In fact, she’s one of the few pop stars who can successfully pick up and drop these masks not just from era to era, like Madonna, but week to week. How many other people have you seen flip between being the demure face of Dior and acting as a villainous gangster with a treasure trove of swords and a machete labelled “cheater”? Rihanna is hands down one of the most interesting and versatile pop stars in the world right now, and there are a lot of things I love about the video for “BBHMM”. Aesthetically, it’s brilliant. Then there’s the visual nods to a myriad of cult films from Carrie to The Doom Generation to Weekend At Bernie’s, the fact that Rihanna personally found one of her femme fatale sidekicks on Instagram, and the way it presents female nudity without being in any way sexual; the male gaze completely rejected. But ultimately, the video for “BBHMM” is another example of an artist who has subtracted the value of a good thing by taking it too far too literally.
Follow Emma on Twitter.